World music that swings: Hot Club of Cowtown coming to ArtsCenter

Jan. 09, 2014 @ 10:15 AM

When violinist-fiddler Elana James talks about the music called Western swing, she pays homage to the first generation of musicians who created that style. James is one-third of the modern swing band Hot Club of Cowtown. “When the band started we were fortunate to play with some of the first generation” of musicians, like Leon Rausch and Bobby Koffer, she said. “I feel like I have a connection to something very authentic, and I’m very grateful for that”

James spoke by phone from Austin, Texas, a stop on Hot Club’s tour that comes to The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Saturday. She recalled a North Carolina connection to the current lineup: In 2000, the band was playing a show in this state with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, where they met Jake Erwin, who has been their bass player ever since.
James and guitarist-vocalist Whit Smith are original members of Hot Club of Cowtown, which started in 1996 in San Diego. Their first national release, “Swingin’ Stampede,” came out in 1998. Last year, the trio released “Rendezvous in Rhythm,” which James called a collection of jazz standards.
James did not grow up listening to Western swing. Anyone who listens to James’ solos can hear that she has good technique on her instrument. She has been playing violin since age 4, almost 40 years. “I’m a Suzuki kid. … I continued studying classical [music] until I was out of college,” she said.
During her years of classical study, she heard swing style played on the violin and was intrigued. Then at a music camp “my violin teacher and her husband started playing Gershwin tunes,” and she decided that day she wanted to be a musician. “What I heard that night affected me so deeply,” James said. Years later, Smith made her a collection of recordings with violinists playing swing rhythms. The music married the instrument’s “technical potential” with “these crazy improvised ideas and all these beautiful melodies,” she said.
Learning to improvise was difficult at first, James said. She went to India, where she met a classical vocalist who improvised, and that experience gave her the confidence to start improvising solos. When she gives workshops, she enjoys bringing out that improvisatory side of musicians. “I came to improvisation as someone who didn’t know what I was doing, and I feel I can empathize with someone who is going through that,” James said.
The band plays traditional tunes that are part of the Western swing tradition – which has elements of the blues, jazz, country and folk music. They also write original tunes, a process James said involves the band contributing to ideas individual members of the trio  bring to the group. “I love the songs that Whit has written,” she said. “He has written a lot of songs that we don’t play in the show. I try to write songs that play on our strengths,” she said.
Asked about those strengths, James mentions 15 years of recording and touring, which gives their show great energy and focus. “We fly across the world to western China and play at a State Department event, [and] we will blow it out of the water. I’m very proud of that,” she said.
“I love doing those tours,” she said of the Department of State’s American Music Abroad series. “I think we get classified as folk music. We think of ourselves as world music,” James said. All musical traditions have local styles and acoustic instruments such as they play. And audiences worldwide respond to Western swing. “The rhythm touches something in people. … Even a sad song has this uplifting rhythm, and people can sense that.”


WHAT: Hot Club of Cowtown
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro
ADMISSION: Advance tickets are $25, $29 day of show; to purchase, call 919-929-2787 or visit